Friday, May 20, 2011

Change of Priorities

Sometime ago we were dispatched to a residential structure fire at 2:00 a.m. Fire was venting out the roof and there was every indication there would be occupants. No one met us in the front yard, no one was trying to escape, not good... As we were making entry through the front door, something caught my eye that left an indelible mark. A small piece of paper was taped to the storm door glass which read, "PLEASE TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES." I am certain that this note was not neatly written out and perfectly placed at eye level having this moment in mind. As much as we would like to adhere to the property owners request, at this moment, priorities changed. What made this note even more stark was not only was there no chance that we were removing our boots, but anyone who knows firefighters, knows that the last thing we would ever have on our feet is a clean pair of boots. You will be glad to know that the occupants were remodeling this house and had not moved into it yet. No one was home.
Strange isn't it? How we have those priorities that we think matter and when the context changes, it really doesn't matter. I hear it all the time..."The property can be replaced, but you cannot." I certainly don't want to come off as a person who can't appreciate the stuff people work very hard to have in their possession. I am sure they were proud of their new carpet. Were it under any other pretense I would have been happy to oblige, but in the context of moment I knew that note was not worth the paper it was written on. When the fire was extinguished and overhaul was started, every time I passed through that door, I saw that note and my heart sank. Every time I experience someone else's tragedy, my priorities change. I have learned to appreciate the small things. I look at "things" a bit differently. Stuff that I thought was important is now thrown farther down the scale. I now hug my loved ones awhile longer. I tell my wife and kids, "I love you.", as much as I can. And if you come over and visit my house, I want you to feel welcome and comfortable. I want you to know that YOU are my friend and I am glad to see you. You can take your shoes off if you like, but don't expect to see a note on the door...

Friday, November 12, 2010

I Wish...

I came across this sometime ago. I am not sure who the author is. If you ever wanted to climb into the mind of a firefighter, here it is.

I wish you could see
the sadness of a business man as his livelihood goes up in flames or that family returning home, only to find their house and belongings damaged or destroyed.

I wish you could know
what it is to search a burning bedroom for trapped children, flames rolling
above your head, your palms and knees burning as you crawl, the floor sagging
under your weight as the kitchen beneath you burns.

I wish you could comprehend
a wife's horror at 3 A.M. as I check her husband of forty years for a pulse
and find none. I start CPR anyway, hoping against the odds to bring him back,
knowing intuitively it is too late. But wanting his wife and family to
know everything possible was done.

I wish you could know
the unique smell of burning insulation, the taste of soot-filled mucus,
the feeling of intense heat through your turnout gear, the sound of flames
crackling, and the eeriness of being able to see absolutely nothing in
dense smoke--sensations that I have become too familiar with.

I wish you could understand
how it feels to go to work in the morning after having spent most of the
night, hot and soaking wet at a multiple alarm fire.

I wish you could read
my mind as I respond to a building fire, 'Is this a false alarm or a working,
breathing fire? How is the building constructed? What hazards await me?
Is anyone trapped or are they all out?' or to an EMS call, 'What is wrong
with the patient? Is it minor or life-threatening? Is the caller really
in distress or is he waiting for us with a 2x4 or a gun?'

I wish you could be
in the emergency room as the doctor pronounces dead the beautiful little
five-year old girl that I have been trying to save during the past twenty-five
minutes, who will never go on her first date or say the words,
"I love you Mommy," again.

I wish you could know
the frustration I feel in the cab of the engine, the driver with his foot
pressing down hard on the pedal, my arm tugging again and again at the
air horn chain, as you fail to yield right-of-way at an intersection or
in traffic. When you need us, however, your first comment upon our arrival
will be, "It took you forever to get here!"

I wish you could read my thoughts
as I help extricate a girl of teenage years from the mangled
remains of her automobile, 'What if this were my sister, my girlfriend,
or a friend? What were her parents' reactions going to be as they open
the door to find a police officer.

I wish you could know how it feels
to walk in the back door and greet my parents and family,
not having the heart to tell them that I nearly did not come home from
this last call.

I wish you could feel
my hurt as people verbally, and sometimes physically,
abuse us or belittle what we do, or as they express their attitudes of,
It will never happen to me.

I wish you could realize
the physical, emotional, and mental drain of missed meals, lost sleep, and
forgone social activities, in addition to all the tragedy my eyes have

I wish you could know
the brotherhood and self-satisfaction of helping save a life or preserving
someone's property, of being there in times of crisis, or creating order
from total CHAOS.

I wish you could understand
what it feels like to have a little boy tugging on your arm and asking,
"Is my Mommy O.K.?" Not even being able to look in his eyes without
tears falling from your own and not knowing what to say. Or to have to hold
back a long-time friend who watches his buddy having rescue breathing done
on him as they take him away in the ambulance. You knowing all along he
did not have his seat belt on.

Sensations that I have become too familiar with. Unless you have lived
this kind of life, you will never truly understand or appreciate who I
am, what we are, or what our job really means to us.

Friday, October 29, 2010

If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't have believed it.

I see some weird stuff. If I lived in a large town where the likelihood of seeing that person ever again was slim to none, it wouldn’t be half bad. Problem is if you did something in a small town that required the fire engine to show up, I know you…you know me…and now I know something about you I didn’t know before. And truth is, I wish I didn’t know it. I hate making people feel embarrassed, but let’s face it, if you did something stupid and it just happened to be during my shift don’t treat me like I have some disease you can’t be around when I see you out in public. I am not going to run down the aisles of the super market we are at and tell everyone you stuck your ____ into a ____ and we had to use a ______ to get it out. I may have joked about it in the confines of the firehouse with those involved, but that’s mild compared to what folks out there in the community heard…and those embellishments didn’t come from us. I know you may be absolutely paralyzed with fright when you see me, but just remember this…I have seen worse and you should consider yourself lucky. Some people who make poor decisions never survive their indiscretion. Or even worse cause the death of others. What you did was stupid…get over it. Consider it an opportunity for me in the future to tell my grandchildren, gathered around my deathbed, that story which starts, “If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes…”

Monday, June 28, 2010

An Ounce of Prevention...

There are few businesses that work really hard at putting themselves out of work. The worse thing any employee can do is rob himself of job security. There are, however, a few exceptions to these rules. The fire service is one of them. We literally try to get the fire out of the fire department. In time past, we were a reactive service. You had a fuel lamp get knocked over and start a fire; you called the fire department and we responded, put the fire out and that was pretty much it. There were no pamphlets on "Fuel Lamp Safety" to hand out, nor were there demonstrations to elementary-aged kids showing them how to properly hang fuel lamps.

So what was the point we began transitioning from being reactive to becoming proactive? Believe it or not, about 150 years ago.

On Oct. 9, 1871, the Great Chicago Fire started. This tragic fire killed about 300 people, left 100,000 homeless and destroyed more than 17,000 structures. One popular legend claims that Mrs. Catherine O'Leary was milking her cow when the animal kicked over a fuel lamp, set the O'Leary's barn on fire and started the fiery conflagration. The city of Chicago was fast to rebuild and soon began to remember the event with festivities. The Fire Marshals Association of North America (FMANA)believed the 40th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire should be observed in a way that would keep the public aware of the importance of fire prevention.
On Oct. 9, 1911, FMANA sponsored the first National Prevention Day. In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson issued the first national Fire Prevention Day proclamation. By 1925, President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the first National Fire Prevention Week, which was Oct. 4-10, 1925. National Fire Prevention Week is always the week in which Oct. 9 falls. Each year, a specific theme is chosen and is commemorated throughout the United States.

Public education has brought great improvement in fire prevention in the United States. Many people have learned to take precautions against fire. Boys and girls in schools practice fire drills and learn how to prevent fires. They bring that information home to their parents. Each person is urged to examine his own home, both inside and out, and to make it safe from fire. Truth is, I would much rather give your kid a coloring book and a sticker than put him in the back of an ambulance because you were too busy to keep him away from the boiling pot on the stove.

About half of all fires are caused by carelessness or lack of common sense. Every year, thousands of people loose their lives beacuse they did not heed the little voice saying, "You are overloading that outlet!", or "Don't use gasoline to start that!" To rephrase an old saying..."An ounce of stupidity with respect to fire is worth a pound of charred skin." Are you paying attention to fire prevention in your home or workplace? Do you have working smoke detectors? Do you have fire extinguishers? Let me rephrase this again..."A $40 fire extinguisher is worth $4,000 in fire damage." or even better "A $20 smoke detector is worth a life saved." I have actually said to a homeowner, who seemed indifferent about a non-working smoke detector, "If I give you $3 will you go and buy the 9 volt battery to replace the dead one in your smoke detector? It's worth $3 to me not to have to call your survivors." If you think I sounded harsh...get over it and make your home or workplace safer.

Check out this family friendly checklist:

Monday, June 21, 2010

Train Like You Fight-Fight Like You Train

"Let no man's ghost return to say his training let him down."

I can honestly say that I have never seen a member of the general public show up to a fire department training meeting and say, "I just wondered what you all do." I guess the same could be said of a lot of professions. Most folks just assume that we will show up and put water on the fire...job done. Ever stop and think about what your firefighters do? Not only do we know which end of the hose the water comes out of, we also know how to perform static hydraulic source calculations, have a good working knowledge of the physics of combustion and know how to perform a modified jaw thrust maneuver. No, we didn't learn all these things from an episode of "Manswers." We learned them from our instructors, thick textbooks and hands-on training. We spend hundreds of hours learning about how to handle a situation that may last only a few minutes. We train to make your worst day better. More importantly, we train on issues that can mean the difference between life and death. Truth is we train for very selfish reasons. I have a number of reasons to train, they are...Amy, Levi, Bethany, Ally and wife and kids. Tucked inside my helmet is a photo of those five, main reasons I train. There have been moments in my career when I wasn't sure I would make it out of that burning house alive. Moments that, when they were over, I found myself looking down the inside of my helmet, looking at those faces and knowing that my training was what saved my life. Training is a vital part of what we do. Unfortunately, many departments are slashing budgets and guess what gets the knife I have read the NIOSH published reports of firefighter line of duty deaths (LODDs)and there is one common denominator that you find in almost everyone of them -"Lack of training." According to the national standard, fire departments must have at least one training a month. I can assure you that any firefighter worth his weight in soot trains more than one day a month. If for no other reason, I have five lives counting on me showing up at the end of my shift.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Thanks to the Caveman

-"In a word, Brian,what's this job about?" -"Fire." -"It's a living thing, Brian. It breathes, it eats, and it hates. The only way to beat it is to think like it. To know that this flame will spread this way across the door and up across the ceiling, not because of the physics of flammable liquids, but because it wants to. Some guys on this job, the fire owns them, makes 'em fight it on it's level, but the only way to truly kill it is to love it a little." -Backdraft (1991)

History is important to the fire service. We can see from the earliest of recorded history that Egyptians used hand operated pumps to extinguish fires. In Roman times (around 55 AD) the fire brigades consisted of hundreds of men, mostly slaves, who were put into service. When there was a fire, the men would line up to the nearest water source and pass buckets hand in hand to the fire. This system of fire fighting continued up until the 17th century when the fire pumps operated by engines were introduced.
The history of fire itself intrigues me. It was probably people in Africa who first began to use fire for cooking, about 800,000 or a million years ago. People had always known about fire, because fires happened naturally when there were lightning strikes or sparks from two rocks hitting together. Probably the first people who made their own fires started them from fires that were already going. Then they figured out how to make fires by hitting flints together or by rubbing two sticks together. Fire was a very early invention, before clothing, and only a little after simple tools like the stone chopper. Making their own fires let people cook their food. Cooked food is easier to digest than raw food, and people can get more energy from it with less work. This extra energy may have been what helped people grow bigger brains than monkeys, and get smarter so they could invent other things.
At the same time, once people needed fires to cook their food, they couldn't just go off alone into the forest - they needed to all sit together around their fire. In the Stone Age, it was too hard to make your own fire. This encouraged people to learn to get along with each other and cooperate instead of fighting, and helped to form organized tribes.
What makes this even more amazing is that fire, by its very nature, is threatening. But we as humans have been able to repress our fear of fire and harness it for good.
So what does this have to do with a small-town fireman? Simply put, we owe a simple, yet profound, debt to our ancestry who were able to overcome a primal fear to have something good.
This is where the question comes in, "When everyone is running out of a burning building, why do firefighters run in?" Firefighters are taught to understand fire. We learn that by definition, fire is a rapid chemical reaction that produces energy. We learn the fire tetrahedron (you may remember it as a fire triangle) where the elements of heat, oxygen, fuel and the chemical reaction produce fire and when you remove one element of the fire tetrahedron the fire simply goes out. We learn fire science. Most significant to our job is that we learn how to tune our fears. Understanding that we can co-exist with fire around us is very important. We, like the caveman, overcome a fear to produce a good act toward our fellow man in putting out the fire that is destroying his property. We have this wonderful career with a great deal of thanks to the caveman.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Smells and Bells

False alarms are a good thing...don't get me wrong. If for no other reason they are a great distraction from the "less than active" days here at the firehouse. We generally categorize false alarms into two broad areas:
"Smells" (someone smells a funky burning aroma that is out of the ordinary)
"Bells" (a fire alarm or smoke detector activates)

The sense of smell is a wonderful thing. What never ceases to amaze me is how refined some people's sniffer is. A call comes in from dispatch of a resident who smells smoke in her house. We react the same as we would with any possible structure fire call. We would rather error on the side of caution. Stepping off the truck we are met by a lady who states she can't really tell what the smell is or where it is coming from, but she thinks that there is a strange burning smell in her house. We step up to the door and are immediately met with a strong odor of cheap cigarettes and cat urine. Close behind is the lady, seemingly badgering us with the continuous banter of, "Do you smell that?!"..."Can you smell it?"..."It smells like something is burning!" This is usually the point where I compliment the lady on her keen sense of smell, but I restrain myself from saying my eyes are watering from the obvious. I ask, "What does it smell like to you?" This quickly brings a look of disgust upon the lady's face. Now at this point, the credibility of the fireman's nostrils comes into question. She quickly sharpens her brows and harshly states, "You mean to tell me you can't smell that!?!?" Now the fun begins. "Furball" the cat, who obviously needs a cat box and six ashtrays of generic cigarette butts couldn't possibly be the cause of the the hunt begins. Fuse panel, stove, coffee maker, clothes dryer, a check of the attic,and oh yeah, I correct myself, a turd-filled cat box. Just as I am running out of things to check ...*sniff...*sniff...sure enough. A burning plastic smell comes up my nasal passages and registers in my brain. A quick glance at one of the ash trays on the end table reveals the sinister culprit. The brimming over ash tray had one of its flock sprout arms and push itself out onto a plastic bag sitting next to it. A quick sniff of the small zip lock and that was the connection. "Does this smell like what you were smelling?", I inquired. Removing the GPC cigarette from her lips we quickly came to an agreement. Her apologies were well received and the problem was solved.

"Bells" are always interesting. Anytime you involve a mechanical device into the equation you are bound to have issues and the fire service is no different. What most people don't know is that smoke detectors, like any other battery operated thing with a buzzer is only good for so long. Most smoke detector manufacturers recommend a smoke detector be replaced every 8 to ten years. And many folks don't know that if a smoke detector chirps it means something is wrong with the device and not neccesarily that something is burning. We will be glad to make sure everything is OK. We have become very good at interpretting the mating call of the "Platic-Breasted Ceiling Bird." We actually carry some spare 9-volt batteries in case you don't have one. Without question, smoke detectors save more lives than firefighters do. We want you to take good care of them...all of them.
So don't hesitate if you get a weird smell or a chirping smoke detector in your home. We want you to feel safe and stay that way. Always error on the side of caution...we do.